Formula 1 finally got its first two time winner of the season in the eighth round, after a fascinating race, in which Fernando Alonso came from 11th on the grid to win.
His victory owned a lot to an excellent start, where he made up three places, to some fine pitwork from the Ferrari mechanics (Alonso’s first stop was two seconds faster than Raikkonen and allowed him to jump the Lotus) and to race strategy. He also rode his luck when the safety car was deployed on lap 28, one of the race’s defining moments.
He had several slices of luck in fact; Sebastian Vettel was running away with the race when his Red Bull car stopped with an alternator failure and a similar problem sidelined the second fastest car, the Lotus of Romain Grosjean. And another pit stop problem for McLaren, moved Lewis Hamilton out of Alonso’s way at the crucial second stop, under the safety car.
It had looked a very unlikely win after qualifying, where Ferrari made a tactical error in not sending the car out early enough in Q2 and then not using a second set of soft tyres to ensure that he made it into the top ten shootout. They were trying to ensure that they had two sets of new soft tyres for the Q3 session, but misjudged the competitiveness of the field and missed the cut.
So although his starting track position was poor, ironically this qualifying error also helped on race day as Alonso had one new set of medium tyres and two new sets of softs to play with. It meant that he could use new tyres for all three stints in the race and as everyone’s tyres were fading at the end of stints, ultimately it was the thing that kept his nose ahead.
By making a great start and taking all his opportunities to overtake and gain positions, Alonso gave himself the chance to win the race.
Before the start, the feeling was that one stop was slower than a two by 16 seconds, which is almost an entire pit stop, but that the one stopper would be ahead after the final stops and that track position could prove significant. A new Medium tyre was expected to last 25 laps and the soft 20 laps.
Most teams looked at the tyre degradation figures from Friday practice and concluded that it would not be possible to do the race competitively on one stop.
What the teams are looking for is the point in the wear cycle where the degradation becomes so bad that the tyre performance drops off a cliff. What makes this so tricky is that it varies from circuit to circuit. At some venues it is when the tyre is 70% worn, at others it’s later in the tyre’s life. You don’t know until you get there. On hotter tracks it tends to be closer to the 70% level.
Some teams felt that one stop might be possible; Force India’s Paul di Resta and both Mercedes drivers considered it and started the race with that as the plan. But only Di Resta saw it through. Arguably he would have been better not to; had he opted to cover the late second stops of the Mercedes drivers and fitted a set of soft tyres as they did, he could have finished ahead of his team mate Hulkenberg.
A strange race tactically speaking
In the past at Valencia, overtaking was always very hard and therefore track position in the race was everything. But with this generation of Pirelli tyres and the DRS wing things have changed.
A perfect example of this was the way that Michael Schumacher, Mark Webber and Nico Rosberg’s races evolved in the final 20 laps.
Webber and Schumacher qualified outside the top ten; Webber had a technical problem and qualified 19th, while Schumacher was 12th. Both men started on the medium compound tyre, which made a one-stop strategy a possibility. Mercedes planned to do this with Schumacher, but once again the predictions based on the tyre performance in Friday practice turned out to be wrong on race day. The rear tyres were overheating on some cars within the first five or six laps, so one stop was a major challenge.
Rosberg was also planning on one stopping, but his pace was very slow and by the time Sebastian Vettel made his first stop, Rosberg was already 32 seconds behind him. But the safety car helped bring him back into the pack and he too made a late switch onto soft tyres and he ended up sixth. Di Resta was 2 seconds behind Hulkenberg and 27 seconds ahead of Rosberg after that late stop and should have covered it by pitting himself. He would have stayed ahead of Rosberg and, looking at the relative pace on new tyres, would easily have overhauled Hulkenberg for 5th place in the closing stages.
From lap 46 onwards Schumacher and Webber were a second a lap faster than the leaders and so could make progress through the field towards the podium, which Schumacher eventually got.
The front runners all made their second stops when the safety car was deployed on lap 28, meaning that they had 29 laps to go to the finish, of which five were at low speed behind the safety car. Webber and Schumacher had been helped by the safety car closing the field up and they were able to pit ten laps later and on new softs to cut through the points positions towards the podium. Nico Hulkenberg, for example, was 16 seconds ahead of Schumacher on lap 42, but he was passed by the Mercedes driver on lap 56.
The safety car always changes the game from a strategy point of view. In Valencia it did a number of things. First it put all the front runners on a lopsided strategy, whereby the middle stint had been shorter than planned; they intended to go to around lap 32 and the safety car obliged them to stop on lap 28. So they were committed to a long final stint on medium tyres. This provided an opportunity for Mercedes and Webber. It also provided an opportunity for Di Resta, but as we’ve seen, Force India didn’t take it.
Second it led to a shake up of the order at the front as another McLaren problem pit stop for Hamilton dropped him behind Alonso and into a pack of cars. Had that stop gone smoothly, Hamilton would have been ahead of Alonso in the final stint, would have avoided the collision with Maldonado and would have fought Alonso for the win, arguably having to settle for a podium as his tyre wear was clearly not as good as the Ferrari’s.
VALENCIA TYRE CHOICES
Alonso : SN, SN(15), MN(28)
Raikkonen: SU, SU(14), MN (28)
Schumacher: MN, SN(19), SU (41)
Webber: MN, SN(19) SN(38)
Hulkenberg (SU, MN (14), MN(28)
Rosberg: SU, MN (20), SU(46)
Di Resta: SU, MN(23)
Button: SU, MN (10), MN(26)
Perez: MN, SU (10), SN (25)
Senna: SU, MN (20) DT (24)
Ricciardo: SN, SN(14), MN (37)
Maldonado: SU, MN (14), MN (28)
Petrov: SN, SN(13), SU(25), MN (28), MN (47)
Kovalainen: SN, SN(12), MN(27)
Pic: MN, SN (11), MN (28)
Massa: SN, MN (11), SN (27), MU (34), SU(53)
De la Rosa: SN, SU(14), MN(28)
Kartikeyan SN, SU (15), MN(29) DT (39)
Hamilton SU, MN (13), MN(28)
Grosjean: SU, SU(16), MU(28)
Vettel: SU, SU(16), MN(29)
Kobayashi: SU, SU(14) MN(29)
Vergne: MN, SU (17)